Arts & Theater

‘When We Were Colored’ play examines a move from the segregated South to Sacramento

The late Eva Rutland and daughter Ginger Rutland.
The late Eva Rutland and daughter Ginger Rutland. Sacramento Bee staff

“When We Were Colored,” a new play by Ginger Rutland, premiers this month at the Sacramento Theater Company. The play centers on her family’s experience dealing with discrimination and racism, yet still finding joy and success.

Before turning her hand to playwriting, Ginger Rutland had a long and successful career in journalism, working as a television reporter for 17 years before joining the editorial board of The Sacramento Bee. She remained with The Bee until her retirement 25 years later. “When We Were Colored” is the first play she has written.

Yet Rutland is not the first writer in her family: Ginger’s mother, Eva Rutland, authored the book which inspired the play. Her book was originally published in 1964 with the title “The Trouble with Being a Mama,” and her daughter largely adapted her memoirs to the stage.

Eva Rutland was born into an upper-middle-class black family in Atlanta. She had a happy childhood. She grew up, went to college, got married, and had children.

The Rutland family moved to Sacramento in 1952. For Eva Rutland, it was a worrying move.

“She comes to California and she’s entering an integrated world for the first time,” Ginger said. “Despite what people say about the South and segregation, she was loved, she was cherished, and she was protected in that upper-middle-class black environment in Atlanta.”

Eva worried about how her children would be accepted in a white environment. In her book, she wrote, “Integration in theory is a fine, high-sounding utopia. In reality I shivered as I watched my children shed the warm cloak of segregation.” There was safety where everybody was the same, black. Now she was in a place where white people were in charge. How would they treat her children?

“When We Were Colored” tells the story through a series of vignettes – scenes from the past – accentuated by projections of family photos in the backdrop. The Sacramento Theater Company presents the premier between March 20 and April 28.

Director Stephen Eich got involved in the project about a year and a half ago, after a friend asked him to read the script. Nationally recognized for his work as executive director of the Pasadena Playhouse and managing director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Eich was attracted to the play by its complex characters.

“Modern African American theatrical literature is usually guided by a cataclysmic event like a murder or a death or drugs or jail, or illegitimate children or more,” eich said. “This show navigated that and basically showed how a family could be a success. The audience will be taken on … the journey of one black family navigating the problems of segregation and racism, and coming out of it on the other side successfully.”

The point, according to Ginger Rutland, is that Eva’s is not an unusual story. Many black families had stories like this, with “mothers and fathers in the home who went to work, sent their kids to school, and loved each other.” Their children grew up to be accomplished and successful.

“I’ve been black all my life,” Rutland said, “and it’s not unremitting sadness. It ain’t that bad.”